God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission
By R. Marie Griffith
Univ. of California Press
275 pp.; $24.95, hardcover
Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power
By Brenda E. Brasher
Rutgers Univ. Press
217 pp.; $48, cloth, $19, paper
The evangelical women in Brenda E. Brasher's and R. Marie Griffith's recent books are not the cookie-cutter stereotypes you are acquainted with through the media, much recent scholarship, or the musings of Andrea Dworkin. They may instead be more like the women who sit next to you in church. For it is the goal of these books to challenge the flat cliche of evangelical women as participants in their own unadulterated oppression.
These new studies argue that, contrary to popular perception, evangelical women can, as Brasher puts it, "be powerful in a religious cosmos generally conceded to be organized around their disempowerment." Or, as the subtitle of Marie Griffith's book suggests, there is power in submission.
A colleague of mine recently complained that book reviews no longer do what they are supposed to do: tell you whether or not you should read the book. In an attempt to redress her grievance, I will be blunt. You should read Marie Griffith's book. If you teach a course on women's history or American religion, you should not only read God's Daughters but add it to your syllabus immediately. If you are a pastor, you should integrate Griffith's insights about prayer into your next sermon. And if you are stumped when the next occasion for gift giving rolls around, consider this book: It is one of those rare releases from an academic press that your sister or husband will enjoy reading in the bath or curling up with at night in bed.
In God's Daughters, Griffith examines the numerous ways in which members of the Aglow fellowship—an interdenominational charismatic women's group—assert authority and exercise power even as they remain devoted to a religion that propounds a conservative ideology of gender. It is a superb exploration not only of evangelicalism and women but also of prayer, therapy, family, and dieting (yes, dieting—the dieting section was in fact one of my favorites).
In a number of ways, God's Daughters is a model of ethnography done right. It has become a requirement that, rather than try to achieve an impossible objectivity, ethnographers "situate" themselves, telling the reader up front what their own biases are and how these biases constrain the story they can tell. In the first few pages, Griffith honestly informs the reader (as she informed the Aglow women) of her more liberal Christian affiliations, and she acknowledges that, as a committed feminist, her political and social views differ markedly from those of most of her subjects. She even considers the way her age —25 when she began research—might have affected her findings, given that the Aglow women she interviewed, on average twice her age, often interacted with Griffith in mother-daughter mode. Furthermore, in her introduction Griffith elegantly and painlessly limns the anthropological, literary, and political theory that has influenced her work, rendering accessible ideas that, in the hands of others, often appear abstruse and impenetrable.
Griffith also pulls off the rare feat of balancing ethnography with history. She places the Aglow movement in three different historical contexts: the development of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century, the therapeutic and recovery movement so pervasive in America today, and the changing understandings of women over the last hundred years. Furthermore, Griffith does not consider merely the Aglow women of the 1990s. Rather, she traces Aglow from its inception in 1967 to the present, showing that Aglow has changed over time in response to broader cultural shifts.
Although Aglow members are frequently critical of the culture of therapy in America, for example, Aglow has increasingly appropriated the language of the recovery movement: while through the 1970s Aglow women and Aglow publications presented anger as "a sin, pure and simple … by the mid-eighties … spirit-filled writers were beginning to interpret anger in increasingly therapeutic and sympathetic terms."
Essential to Griffith's overall argument is the changing understanding of submission among Aglow women. While the earliest Aglow members trotted out Colossians 3:18 and Ephesians 5:22 to encourage wives to submit utterly to their husbands, by 1995, Aglow International President Jane Hansen condemned the message as a distortion of the Bible and encouraged women and men to embrace instead the doctrine of mutual submission.
Aglow has also modified its rhetoric to accommodate the fact that most women now work outside of the home. A 1974 Aglow statement on hospitality said: "Because we, as women, are the homemakers, we have the blessing of opening our homes to God's people." By 1985, the reference to "homemakers" had been dropped.
The only disappointment in God's Daughters is Griffith's somewhat anticlimactic concluding chapter. There she offers illuminating insights into both evangelical women's attitudes toward feminism and feminist women's attitudes toward evangelicalism. But she also spills a great deal of ink calling for "fresh ways to think about power and resistance … that would avoid the either/or perspective, by which practices are viewed as either opposing or conserving certain meanings and values, but rather understand them as doing both, upholding power arrangements even while exposing them to unexpected challenges." Over 20 years ago, historians of American slavery pioneered exactly the type of analysis that Griffith calls for, and such an approach is now commonplace among feminist historians. Her vision of finding "a way of transposing this bifurcation, so deeply embedded in American thought, between resistance and subordination," is not unique, but rather what Foucault and all the little Foucaults have seen as central to their mission for the better part of three decades. It is puzzling that Griffith ignores the rich historiographical precedents that have done no less than forge these "fresh ways" of thinking about power.
But this is merely a quibble with a magnificent book. Although Griffith may disagree with many of the religious and political commitments of her subjects, she never betrays any disdain for them. This is a rare trait in ethnographies, and it is always what separates the gold from the dross. Among studies of American Christians, only Randall Balmer's Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory and Grant Us Courage rival God's Daughters in this regard. Griffith transcends the differences between herself and the Aglow women to present a portrait of them that is both respectful and loving.
Rather than studying an all-women's parachurch organization, Brenda Brasher has written an ethnography of the women's ministries at two large, fundamentalist churches in Southern California ("fundamentalist," incidentally, is her term, not mine, and I am not convinced that she uses it appropriately). Like Griffith, Brasher argues that, contrary to what one might prima facie assume, women derive substantial power from their affiliation with evangelicalism.
Although glossed in the media and much scholarship as "anti-feminist" and "post-feminist," these women, Brasher finds, are ardently committed to many political issues that have been advanced by feminist groups, such as paid maternity leave, marital rape laws, equal pay for men and women in the workplace, and ending domestic violence. Furthermore, many women assume significant leadership roles in the women's ministries, and these leaders encourage other women to seize an active role in their families, telling women "that they could shape their husbands' actions and alter … familial behaviors."
The conclusion that evangelical women can carve out power in an oppressive atmosphere is all that Brasher's book and God's Daughters have in common. In contrast to Griffith's rendering of Aglow members, Brasher's description of the women she studied is often condescending. In her epilogue, for example, Brasher grapples with the question of why women enter evangelical religious communities in the first place, when there are so many other options that seem more welcoming to women. In answering this question, Brasher gives neither women nor evangelicalism very much credit: "With scant energy to expend evaluating alternatives, women are likely to favor religious alternatives that offer readily accessible, easily grasped answers."
It is not only the women that Brasher speaks about with condescension, but also the genuine power of belief. She seems uneasy discussing the transcendent—which is not the best trait in a scholar of American religion. After much hemming and hawing about the role of economics in dictating the religious choices of evangelicals, Brasher finally asserts: "I continue to think that the women and men involved in these congregations are motivated by something more than sheer economic functionality." This statement is neither terribly generous nor terribly bold. While scholars must acknowledge that religion is a complex problematic of socioeconomics, politics, geography, and so forth, but our descriptions of people's religiosity must be tempered by a respect for people's faith.
Although Brasher and Griffith are both forthright about their commitment to feminism, Brasher defines her primary mission as waging "the ongoing battle against sexism." Griffith, on the other hand, sees her book as contributing to a different "central feminist goal: a heightened understanding of the 'other'—read 'nonfeminist'—women, who challenge particular assumptions and contradictions within feminist thought."
This subtle but critical difference in the authors' understandings of feminism lies at the heart of any comparison of the two books. Brasher takes a heavy-handed normative stand throughout Godly Women and ultimately concludes that "while I understand the pragmatic compromises many of the women I came to know during this study made, I do not believe they are the best long-term strategies for women." Griffith may well share this view, but if she does, she kept it out of the pages of God's Daughters.
Brasher's few references to herself as a "liberal Christian" and a feminist in no way compare to Griffith's earnest self-reflection, and rather than clarifying the theory that underlies her work, Brasher merely tosses around elusive jargon and self-consciously rephrases the straightforward "in more postmodernish terms." Brasher's historical lens is as narrow as Griffith's is wide. Beyond evincing familiarity with Betty DeBerg's and Margaret Lamberts Bendroth's important historical studies on evangelical women and gender, Brasher seems to have little interest in setting her ethnography in a wider historical framework—despite her claim to "take seriously the historical contexts" of her subjects.
Particularly disappointing in this regard is Brasher's failure to discuss Aimee Semple McPherson. One of the two churches that Brasher studied is a Foursquare Gospel church, and its current teachings about women and gender certainly differ from the days of McPherson's ministry. An examination of Foursquare Gospel churches' transition from their origins to their current commitment to "male headship" would have been fascinating. Brasher, however, only mentions McPherson once, in passing.
McPherson is alluded to a second time when Brasher quotes a female congregant as saying, "Some of the stances they've had in my tenure here are very ironic to me, seeing that the Foursquare church was started by a woman. They didn't want to have women in positions of leadership like a minichurch shepherd. I thought, well, that's pretty weird, pretty ironic." It is intriguing that this congregant drew upon the historical roots of her church to criticize the current "stances," but, as Brasher did not even comment on the congregant's reference to McPherson, she must not have found this topic worthy of pursuit.
Finally, Brasher's purple prose rapidly becomes tiresome. In the first paragraph alone, we encounter such descriptions as "Elaine sweated as she spoke with incredible intensity" and "her phrases rolled out like a warm, wet cloud that appeared to pull most of the women around me into a cosmos of religious significance." The cloud simile is one of Brasher's favorites—we also learn that "As I conclude this story … the goals that inspired me to begin this research reconverge amid the lines of text like beckoning clouds."
Throughout, Brasher's diction is sloppy. One of an increasing number of writers who delight in misusing the word "paradox," she informs us that "the participation of contemporary women in North American conservative Protestant congregations presents a painful paradox to those committed to egalitarian relations between the sexes." Oh? In fact, there is no paradox there, painful or otherwise: said participation may present Brasher and fellow travelers with a quandary, or a challenge; evangelical women may be for some a source of confusion, frustration, even anger; but they are not, in this regard, a paradox.
Evangelicals owe Brenda Brasher and Marie Griffith a debt of thanks for amending the pervasive stereotype of evangelical women and showing, to borrow the title of Judith Stacey and Susan Elizabeth Gerard's article on feminism and evangelicalism, that evangelical women are not doormats. But evangelical readers ought not come away from God's Daughters and Godly Women thinking that, because many women have asserted power and authority within the confines of male headship, a broader critique of the gender roles in evangelicalism is to be dismissed. Although the women in these books are at ease with the precarious balance they have struck between submission and subversion, there are evangelical women and men for whom such a modus vivendi is insufficient. These are the evangelicals, represented in Brasher's and Griffith's studies no more than on the nightly news, who share an unwavering commitment to egalitarianism, taking their cues less from Patricia Ireland than from the radical ethics of Jesus Christ, who taught, as Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:28, "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Lauren F. Winner is Kellett Scholar at Clare College, University of Cambridge.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.